Below the Surface, Above the Noise







UNLV Student-Athletes Swim for Family and Legacy


By Devin Virissimo


Life is challenging enough during a global pandemic but to add on political conflict locally and abroad during finals week is just unreal.  For those international student-athletes that are living in the United States as it continues to struggle through a crucial point in history, keeping track of their friends and family back home in a country also going through its own presidential debacle can be overwhelming.  UNLV swimmers Ivan Zhukau and Katsiarayna “Kate” Afanasyeva are a 16-hour flight away from their loved ones but remain connected through similar cultural experiences.  For them, being in a country deep in its own political chaos is all too familiar after the election in their home country of Belarus has led to thousands taking to the streets to demonstrate their right to protest.


Zhukau, a junior that specializes in the breaststroke as well as the individual medley for UNLV, has been living in the United States for the past three years.  His mother, father, and older brother currently reside in Minsk, a mere 5,800 miles away.  That distance, however, was earned after competing in the Baltic Games as well as the European Junior Championships.  The move to the United States came with the cultural shock of being on his own in a foreign country full of positivity that was unprecedented in Belarus. 


Afanasyeva also made her way to the states to compete for UNLV from her hometown of Gomel. She left behind her mother, father and younger brother after hearing about what the university life was like and wanting desperately to try something new. Now in her fourth year living abroad, she is ranked first on the year in the Mountain West Conference in the 50 fly as well as moving into second place in the UNLV all-time record book in the 100 backstroke, third all-time in the 100 butterfly and 50 freestyle. While she progresses in the water, her graduate work in the classroom is getting her closer to the Kinesiology degree she also works for tirelessly.

Afanasyeva in action at the UNLV pool


Both of their transitions to UNLV were met with uncertainty from their families who were as concerned for their wellbeing as one would expect. Zhukau said it took a good amount of convincing for his parents to take him seriously when he told them just six months prior to the big move that he wanted to come to America. 


“They were worried about me because of the differences in the two countries,” Zhukau said. “It wasn’t until I showed them the coach, team and university that they began to believe me and support me with this decision.”


Afanasyeva also said that when she told her family about her plans, her family was shocked.  Her father was as stressed as any proud dad would be knowing that his only daughter was about to leave home in search of a whole new experience.  Her mother took it much easier but made sure to note her own concerns with the finances tied to such a big move and the distance between all of them. Now four years and three elections later, Kate has seen political drama unfold here and back home around her family.


Both student-athletes share similar outlooks on their home country as a peaceful one full of kind people that work hard for all that they have but desperately seek more than what they currently have. 


“The Belarussian people wanted change,” said Zhukau in regards to the way people voted in the most recent election. “They wanted to grow their country and discover more opportunities.”


Belarus is amongst the lowest ranked countries in the world at 153 according to the World Press Freedom Index.  While not nearly as bad as Turkmenistan and North Korea who battle for the last place year after year, the way the Belarussian government attempts to control their people earns them a nod from those countries.  In Belarus, bloggers and journalists are constantly arrested for speaking about the government in any regard and the leading news sites are blocked in relation to what they post. On top of that, the government retains full control of all television channels while a few independent media outlets are forced to work abroad in fear of arrest.  Even then, local authorities continually harass anyone who speaks out against them.


Now that President Alexander Lukashenko has won the most recent election, with 80 percent of the vote by the way, the people of Belarus have had enough of the tyranny and are desperately trying to regain any semblance of control.  Over 200,000 people protested in September after the election which led to hundreds of protestors being arrested including workers who were on strike, and foreign correspondents from Reuters, the BBC, Deutsche Welle, and the Associated Press.  Lukashenko’s placement of armed military personnel and tanks outside of his home in Minsk set the tone for how he views those speaking out against his election. Not only that, but he also has been seen wielding an assault rifle himself. 


Thankfully, the protests from the two most recent American elections did not cause such a military presence but the protests were similar in numbers at times. Zhukau and Afansanyeva said both of their parents were concerned about them during these times and the feeling was mutual. Both are also the first in their families to venture so far from home, so the anxiety is imminent.


“The most scary thing was when the police and the army were taking everyone from the streets whether they were protesting or not and it didn’t seem to matter,” Zhukau said.  


He went on to express his worry for his family since he was so far away from them but calls them almost daily through Facebook to remain as close as possible.


Afanasyeva finds herself even more aware of the differences between the countries during these unusual circumstances.


“I think that the US also has a lot of political drama, especially watchin the last elections,” she said. “I feel like the only difference is the US government hears people, even if there is drama, because in Belarus the government is deaf.”


The 1876 race for the White House between Rutherford Hayes and Samuel Tilden still holds the record for highest voter turnout but this year’s contest created its own record. President-elect Joe Biden broke President Obama’s record of nearly 70 million votes by over another 11 million votes. President Trump also overtook the previous record with 74 million votes. 


During a time when so much is focused on who will be sworn into office, a couple laps in the pool is exactly what is needed to keep the mind right and the body fit.  Zhukau uses the water as an escape and a discipline to keep his body race-ready. 


“I like the way I feel in water,” he said.


Both he and Kate will be back in the water soon with support locally and abroad, although that distance is much shorter with the world at your pruned fingertips. Their ambitions in the water are only matched by their work in the classroom. Graduation and the Mountain West Championships can not come soon enough as time flies for student-athletes eager to make in impact in their lives and those around them.

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